The Australian government is considering the most sweeping and radical changes to its surveillance and intelligence laws since the establishment of the original powers in 1979. Access to citizens’ information is topical in Australia, with concerns over potential terrorist use of the internet resulting in legislation facilitating easier access to stored communications, forcing ISPs to collect internet traffic data in real-time, and make it available to police in Australia and law enforcement agencies in foreign countries for up to 30 days. GetUp has together an informative video to explain the changes. Watch the video below and sign the petition asking to withdraw the Government’s support for these controversial changes to surveillance laws.
In exchange for providing Greece with a multibillion bailout package, the European Union demanded the implementation of a massive program of privatisation, which means that Greek state assets like ports and airports are going to be sold. The purpose of this privatisation plan is to reduce Greece’s level of debt, i.e. pay back the Troika (EU, ECB and IMF). The creators of Debtocracy, a documentary addressing the beginnings of the current global economic crisis, the non-viability of the Euro and its contribution to economic situation in Greece, compellingly analyse the dramatic shifting of state assets to private hands in their latest documentary called Catastroika. Catastroika is a crowdfunded documentary that has placed privatisation in developed countries in a historical perspective, and provides a warning against the negative impacts of privatisation of state assets.
Last Thursday I found myself having a recurring discussion which usually occurs around 5 December, but always takes place between myself and someone with a different nationality than mine. A discussion about Zwarte Piet.
Being Dutch, on the eve of 5 December I celebrate the feast of Saint Nicholas, or Sint Nicolaas in Dutch. Sinterklaas, as Sint Nicolaas is more commonly known in the Netherlands, was a fourth century saint from Lycia, now present-day Turkey. Widely known for his gift-giving, he became revered by the early Christians, and centuries later became the model for his obese Trans-Atlantic counterpart Santa Claus. Lots of festivities take place around Europe in Saint Nicholas’ name, who is often depicted bearded and dressed in red gowns. Many of the festivities are especially intended for children and revolve around receiving gifts and sweets. In the Netherlands and in Belgium, Sinterklaas parades into the country riding his white horse, after having travelled all the way from Spain by boat, where it is believed Sinterklaas resides and where he will return on 6 December.
Nothing to argue about it seems, were it not that Sinterklaas requires assistance with his gift-giving practice and is therefore surrounded by his helpers, personified as Zwarte Piet or ‘Black Peter’. This is where all the trouble starts. Zwarte Piet is a character that is created using theatrical black makeup, a wig, bright red lipstick, gold jewellery and colourful clothing. He walks the streets along with Sinterklaas providing sweets to passers-by, stuffs candy in children’s shoes left standing near the fireplace and brings families gifts on the eve of 5 December, but only if the children have been good throughout the year. As Zwarte Piet is also the eyes and ears of Sinterklaas, he knows if you’ve been behaving badly. Those children that have been misbehaving do not only miss out on receiving gifts, they are also in danger of getting a beating with the birch-rod, or worse, being taken back to Spain in a canvas sack.
People who are not originally from the Netherlands often experience a unprecedented culture shock when they learn about the existence of Zwarte Piet. What they see is a stereotyped caricature of a black person, something they experience as extremely racist and offensive. As you might have guessed by now, this is what my discussion was about last Thursday: explaining the existence of Zwarte Piet to a non-Dutch individual, or from their perspective, justifying the existence of Zwarte Piet.
There are several different stories about the origins of Zwarte Piet, ranging from the pagan god Wodan riding his white horse while being accompanied by two black ravens, who also happen to be his eyes and ears, to the story that Zwarte Piet has a black face because he comes down the chimney at night to place sweets in the children’s shoes by the fireplace. But for most non-Dutch observers of the phenomenon, it can only be explained one way: Zwarte Piet is an enslaved black man, who is forced to work for the authoritative white guy on the horse. And what’s worse: every year this kind of slavery is celebrated, black people are mocked by white people, and the entire practice takes place in front of children’s eyes, surely creating a malicious generation of racists.
So what do Dutch children make of all this? I grew up in the Netherlands, and like many of my contemporaries, I was told that Zwarte Piet was black because of the soot in the chimney. To tell you the truth, I do not even recall asking my mother why Zwarte Piet was black. He simply had a black face, and it might come as a surprise, but I didn’t even regard him as ‘a black person’, as I am sure my contemporaries at the time, and children today, don’t either. Zwarte Piet was just as mysterious as Sinterklaas, who was rumoured to be hundreds of years old. What does this mean? Well, it means that Dutch Children do not care about why Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet look the way they do. Their concern is having their shoes filled with sweets and getting presents on the eve of 5 December.
The greatest shock for Dutch children as they grow up is finding out that Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet do not exist. Many tears have been shed when it was revealed that the parents filled up the shoes with sweets, and it was the neighbour who rattled the door and left presents on the doorstep. The entire thing turns out to be a hoax, Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet fake, the nationally televised welcome parade of Sinterklaas orchestrated from A to Z. An equally great shock after being confronted with the racist explanation of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet does not occur. If you think that children’s eyes are opened to a horrendous display of racial inequality as they grow older, then you are mistaken. For Dutch children, Sinterklaas isn’t white and Zwarte Piet isn’t black: they’re simply mythical characters from a far-away land bringing sweets and presents.
I do understand the point of view of the person I was debating last Thursday. If you didn’t grow up with Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet and attributed meaning to them as a child, then encountering the phenomenon at a later stage does invoke the interpretation of the entire tradition being racist. Although many people are more understanding after hearing my side of the story, the girl last Thursday wasn’t. She left angrily, unable or unwilling to see my point of view, and probably thinks that all Dutch people are clog-wearing white supremacists. Maybe next time I should refer people to David Sedaris‘ story about ‘Six to Eight Black Men’:
Today is Sunday, a day which most Christians consider to be a day of rest and worship of god. First of all because it is the belief that this is the day of Christ’s resurrection, and secondly because by the seventh day, the man in the sky had completed his work and took a well deserved day off to rest (creating the universe with everything in it sounds tiring). Interestingly enough, Christians can’t decide amongst themselves on which day of the week they should observe Sabbath, as a minority believe they should do so on Saturday instead of Sunday, as do the Jews of course, making the entire practice somewhat more trivial. Additionally, in Israel and in most Muslim countries, Sunday is a regular working day. At least they seem to be on the same page where this matter is concerned. For non-believers, Sunday is part of something we call ‘the weekend’, during which we read a larger edition of our newspaper, our children watch cartoons on television in the early morning, and our favourite sporting team will make their appearance on the pitch. How lovely all these differences between people can be.
But I mustn’t digress. As the Muslims and non-believers can do anything they like on Sunday, they ran into each other in Melbourne earlier this month at the Atheist Convention 2012. Was there signing? Yes! Was there chanting? Yes! A Sunday not unlike one that Christians would have? Judge for yourself:
How could you not want to read a book that is titled Religion for Atheists? The title appeals to both believers and non-believers, and phrased in web terms, it makes the perfect link bait. Although the term link bait often has a negative connotation, stemming from the practice of luring people into reading content using a provocative title, De Botton’s book shouldn’t be judged by its cover. In the end it is the content that determines whether the author will be accused of link baiting or will be praised for writing good content, or in this case, a book. But before I elaborate further on the content of Religion for Atheists, it is helpful to know a bit more about De Botton himself. Also using web terms, De Botton is a proponent of what he calls Atheism 2.0, a concept that he elaborates upon during one of his TED talks.
De Botton, who is himself an atheist and thus doesn’t believe in the existence of a supernatural being, distances himself from more radical atheists such as Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, often condescendingly labeled as militant atheists, by stating that there are many uses for religion in a secular society. De Botton wants to move on from the debate about the existence of god, a question which he regards as boring and dealt with, and instead discuss the ritualistic, communal and moral aspects of religion that can have a positive effect on mankind. With his book Religion for Atheists, De Botton sets out to do just that.
Covering topics like community, kindness, education, tenderness, pessimism, perspective, art, architecture and institutions, De Botton argues that secular societies tend to display gaps and shortcomings that can be filled when borrowing elements from religion. In both his book as well as during his talk for TED, De Botton explains how education, tertiary education specifically, is supposed to make individuals nobler and better people, but fails to teach people how to live. According to De Botton, features like guidance, morality and consolation, learnings that were previously conveyed through religion, are absent in the cultural and intellectual knowledge transfer that takes place in higher education. This particular topic is one that De Botton followed up on himself by establishing The School of life in 2008, which titles its courses according to themes like careers, relationships, politics, travels and families.
Concerning art, De Botton criticises the concept of art for art’s sake, saying that art shouldn’t live in a bubble, but should instead be embedded and interact with our troubled world. According to De Botton, religion does a good job of placing art within our midst, and explaining to us what it is that we are seeing or feeling, unlike art in a secular society, where we are left to find the meaning in art ourselves. In addition, we should be less concerned with the era from which an artwork dates, the materials of which it is made and the technique that is used, but instead we should focus on the didactical message that can be found within the artwork. De Botton therefore proposes that museums should rearrange their collection according to themes like love, fear, compassion and suffering, and in his book even gives a schematic layout of what this would mean for London’s Tate Modern.
With regard to architecture, De Botton argues that buildings in the modern world have become hugely monotone and aesthetically unappealing, if not downright ugly. Unlike religious architecture, Protestant churches excepted, modern architecture is often times not concerned with beauty and bringing a material version of virtues into our structural landscape. Instead, matters of practically and cost-effectiveness reign supreme, with those buildings that are designed with aesthetics in mind lacking the capacity to facilitate quietness and self-reflection. De Botton’s proposal is to establish Temples to Reflection, in which individuals are given an opportunity for a moment of peace and solitude, as would be the case with religious buildings.
One of the strong points in De Botton’s reasoning is that he is apt at putting his finger on the sore spot: struggles that people experience with morality and living good lives, the apparent lack of virtues being transferred through education and culture, the frequently occurring inability of museum visitors to discover themes in artworks, the building of wrist-slitting depression monoliths to provide housing, and the lack of available places where individuals can take a time-out from modern day hectic existence. He is very right to voice his concerns over these issues. In addition, I admire De Botton’s ability to think out of the box and take the debate between believers and non-believers to the next level, while staking out a territory where he is vulnerable for attacks from both fundamental believers as well as radical atheists. I even would go as far as to say that the world’s religions should not be ignored when it comes to life’s lessons and age-old wisdoms, as long as these aren’t dogmatic.
Unfortunately, this is where I foresee difficulties, as dogma lies at the very core of religion. Fundamental believers, individuals that believe in a supernatural being that created the universe, accept this truth and other revelations without the need for evidence, while never doubting its authority, disputing its ground rules or diverging from its teachings. Enlightened believers will argue that many of the religious writings should be seen allegorically and are not to be taken literally, but how is one to distinguish between truths and allegorical writings, where’s the dividing line and who draws it?
Cherry picking religious writings happens on a massive scale, predominantly by believers themselves. Whether it concerns teachings too bizarre to relate to modern times, writings that call for violence against infidels, or religious viewpoints that clash with reigning contemporary values, they are either simply ignored or otherwise explained as being metaphorical. And yet, while believers never have problems ignoring specific teachings or segments of scripture, they will find legitimacy and truth in whatever teachings they are left with, however irrelevant, preposterous or offensive the disregarded texts and teachings happen to be. I fear that this aspect of religion will throw a spanner in the works of De Botton’s non-believers guide to the uses of religion: not only selected religious elements will gain legitimacy due to De Botton’s proposals, but so will holy scripture as a whole, religious beliefs in general, and ultimately the existence of a supernatural being.
The difficulty in isolating religious elements can also be seen in the way in which De Botton’s uses for religion in a modern society come across: instead of retaining a strong secular voice, his proposals become a combination of spiritualism and self-help elements that synthesise into something that most closely resembles New Age 2.0, not Atheism 2.0.